Eric Rubin, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, drew national attention when he expressed deep disappointment in President Donald Trump’s administration as well as in everyday Americans who refuse to follow the public health guidelines mean to limit the spread of coronavirus.
In an article titled, “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum,” Rubin said that “our leaders have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts,” Rubin said. “Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.”
Rubin also acknowledged the shortcomings of average Americans, writing, “(What) we can control is how we behave. And in the United States, we have consistently behaved poorly.” Along with being a leading authority on tuberculosis, Rubin still works in research and as a teacher.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Rubin Has Been a New Englander Since Childhood
According to an article in the National Journal of Medicine introducing Rubin, he grew up in Brockton, an area less than an hour away from the city’s famed “Southie” region.
As Rubin told Harvard University, “Brockton was a working-class city when I was there, a really great place to grow up,” he said. Being a member of the only public high school meant that “everyone knew everyone,” and the people were genuine and down-to-earth. “I still play cards with people that I went to kindergarten with,” he said.
Rubin, according to the journal, became “the acme of achievement.” He originally had an eye towards Princeton, but, after his father gave him five Harvard sweatshirts, Rubin ended up attending Harvard, graduating and going on to the Tufts University School of Medicine.
“He would be thrilled,” Rubin said of his father. “Both my parents were proud of their children. They were pure in their support and love for us.”
2. Rubin Is One of the World’s Leading Tuberculosis Experts
According to a Harvard piece on Rubin, when he was asked by immunologist Barry Bloom what he would do as an assistant professor, Rubin was sure he’d blown it by responding he’d like to study “myobacterium avium,” a bacterium related to tuberculosis. Bloom told Rubin not to be an idiot, and Rubin wasn’t; instead, he pioneered a technique to remove the notoriously difficult-to-access bacterium called “transposon site hybridization.”
The method — which Rubin called TraSH as a joke — allowed him to see which genes the bacteria needed to survive and allowed them to target those areas to kill TB more quickly.
Sarah Fortune, a John LaPorte Given Professor Immunology and Infectious Diseases called Rubin’s methods “MacGyver science,” and told Harvard, “The tools didn’t exist, so Eric had to build them. TraSH, in particular,r has been transformative for TB, and many other pathogens as well. It changed our understanding of potential drug targets for the disease.”
Tuberculosis, mostly treatable in the U.S., has remained a stubborn disease to eradicate given its constantly evolving nature and tendency to become resistant to existing drugs. Another issue with the disease is that its severity is difficult to detect until after death because the bacterial lie deep inside lung tissues. Rubin and Fortune, have been instrumental in helping the post-doctorate student they supervise, Jeffrey Wagner, develop detection methods that will help those developing drugs determine how well a patient is responding to a treatment, Harvard reported.
One way they’re experimenting with is by engineering a strain that contains a mint-smelling molecule so people will emit and scientists will be able to use a spectrometer to say how severely they’ve been affected, according to Harvard. “You measure the amount of wintergreen that you smell on the breath, and that should correlate with the number of bacteria in the animal. That will tell us whether a prospective vaccine or drug is effective in reducing the bacterial load in the animals’ lungs. We’re calling the organism Mycobacterium tubercumint,” Rubin told Harvard with mirth.
3. Rubin Was Named the Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine Last Year
Rubin — perhaps fortuitously, given that his background was in infectious diseases and a coronavirus pandemic would dominate conversations around medicine within a year of his tenure — was named as the next editor for the New England Journal of Medicine in September of 2019. He was already an associate editor at the journal given his expertise in tuberculosis.
BioSpace reported that Rubin was selected by an international search committee.
“Dr. Rubin is a recognized and respected leader in the field of infectious disease, where he is known for his groundbreaking tuberculosis research and his personal dedication to often neglected populations of patients,” Maryanne C. Bombaugh, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, told BioSpace. “We are thrilled that he will lead the Journal and NEJM Group.”
Rubin told the journal, “Our mission remains unchanged: to deliver highly valuable medical research and reviews to health care professionals. But how we deliver information may change. As the way people consume news evolves, we need to be in front, and not simply responsive. We need to adapt.”
4. Rubin Still Teaches Medicine
Rubin holds plenty of esteemed titles in the world of medicine. He leads Harvard’s T.H. Class of Public Health Department. Rubin is also an Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases.
The journal reported that Rubin plans would also continue providing care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“I look at manuscripts differently because I’m an active researcher, submitting manuscripts to journals as well, so I appreciate what authors go through,” he told the Journal. “And because of my lab work, I’m comfortable assessing the basic science component of manuscripts. I’m also comfortable with how to message work for a clinical audience. My work in the lab makes me value research that can truly change things.”
Dr. Rubin has also served on multiple scientific advisory boards is interested in infectious disease therapeutics, such as the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, the Structure-Guided Drug Development Consortium, and the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB-HIV.
5. Rubin Wrote an Editorial Criticizing the Trump Administration’s Handling of Coronavirus
In his editorial, Rubin encouraged people to vote out President Trump and the members of his cabinet for what he described as an inadequate coronavirus response.
“This crisis has produced a test of leadership. With no good options to combat a novel pathogen, countries were forced to make hard choices about how to respond,” Rubin wrote. “Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.” Here is more from his editorial:
Although we tend to focus on technology, most of the interventions that have large effects are not complicated. The United States instituted quarantine and isolation measures late and inconsistently, often without any effort to enforce them, after the disease had spread substantially in many communities. Our rules on social distancing have in many places been lackadaisical at best, with loosening of restrictions long before adequate disease control had been achieved. And in much of the country, people simply don’t wear masks, largely because our leaders have stated outright that masks are political tools rather than effective infection control measures. The government has appropriately invested heavily in vaccine development, but its rhetoric has politicized the development process and led to growing public distrust.
Rubin went on to say that he believed neglect from the administration was the reason America has the most deaths in the world. “Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way,” he wrote, “would be suffering legal consequences.” Here is another quote from the article:
Let’s be clear about the cost of not taking even simple measures. An outbreak that has disproportionately affected communities of color has exacerbated the tensions associated with inequality. Many of our children are missing school at critical times in their social and intellectual development. The hard work of health care professionals, who have put their lives on the line, has not been used wisely. Our current leadership takes pride in the economy, but while most of the world has opened up to some extent, the United States still suffers from disease rates that have prevented many businesses from reopening, with a resultant loss of hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of jobs. And more than 200,000 Americans have died.
Some deaths from Covid-19 were unavoidable. But, although it is impossible to project the precise number of additional American lives lost because of weak and inappropriate government policies, it is at least in the tens of thousands in a pandemic that has already killed more Americans than any conflict since World War II.
Rubin ended the editorial by saying, “Our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”